Mehdi Hasan: Renationalise the railways? Please do.

Will Self triumphs on BBC Question Time.

My fellow New Statesman columnist - and the new professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University - Will Self put in a typically brilliant performance on BBC1's Question Time last night, especially on the subject of rail privatisation.

He interrupted a rambling answer from fellow QT panellist and Conservative cabinet minister Eric Pickes to say:

I merely seek to observe that the [rail] subsidy was £1 billion before [when] they were nationalised, in real terms, and it's now £4 billion.

He continued:

The fundamental mistake - and there were many mistakes about the privatisation of the rail system - but the most fundamental mistake was rail travel, your journey to work, is not a fungible good and that means it cannot be exchanged for anything else. You can't get to Guildford station and think: 'Oh I want go to work in London today. I'll go to Mars on this new rocket train that's been provided by this splendid private company'.

It was a ludicrous idea from the get-go and the particular way that they did it with the track hived off from the rail operators has caused absolute chaos, some dreadful crashes and the current predicament that you find yourselves in.

"So what would you do?" asked Pickles. Self replied, to huge applause from the Surrey audience:

I'd renationalise it.

The 16-year rail privatisation experiment has been an utter disaster. Above-inflation increases in UK train fares - that are now the highest in western Europe - make it more and more unpopular as time goes by. Tory ministers, their cheerleaders in the right-wing press and their Blairite fellow-travellers in the Labour Party often forget - or choose to ignore! - that there is a clear majority in favour of renationalisation of the railways - on the left and the right. The inconvenient truth for ministers is that the likes of Bob Crow - and Will Self! - are more in touch with voters than they are. And the recent row over multi-million-pound, taxpayer-funded Network Rail bonuses - which were eventually and reluctantly waived by Network Rail bosses after public outcry - didn't do the privatisation cause much good. It was another reminder of how messed up the system is.

In fact, as transport expert Christian Wolmar wrote back in October 2008, a month after the start of the financial crisis:

[W]hat New Labour refuses to let on is that the railways are effectively largely publicly-owned anyway. Network Rail, which owns the infrastructure, is a company without shareholders that is dependent on government backed debt (to the tune of £20bn), for its survival. It receives billions in annual grants direct from government and is, to all intents and purposes, a state-run enterprise.

Wolmar also pointed out that with Network Rail already in public hands, it would cost little or nothing to "renationalise them", once the train operators decided to hand back their franchises when their terms expired or once they got into financial difficulties.

This isn't just an ideological or political argument; it's financial. A recent study by the Transport for Quality of Life thinktank found that renationalisation could save the taxpayer £1.2 billion a year "through cheaper borrowing costs, removing shareholders' dividends and reducing fragmentation". £300 million alone, said the study, would be saved if train operating companies were taken into public ownership.

It's a no-brainer: the time has come to renationalise the railways. It would be a popular, effective and money-saving move in our current "age of austerity". Ed Miliband and Maria Eagle - are you listening?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad